100%(1)1 out of 1 people found this document helpful
This preview shows page 128 - 130 out of 225 pages.
One story. Everywhere. Always. Wherever anyone puts pen to paper or hands to keyboard orfingers to lute string or quill to papyrus. They all take from and in return give to the same story, eversince Snorgg got back to the cave and told Ongk about the mastodon that got away. Norse sagas,Samoan creation stories, Gravity’s Rainbow, The Tale of Genji, Hamlet,last year’s graduationspeech, last week’s Dave Barry column, On the Roadand The Road to Rioand “The Road NotTaken.” One story.What’s it about?That’s probably the best question you’ll ever ask, and I apologize for responding with a reallylame answer: I don’t know. It’s not about anything. It’s about everything. It’s not about something theway an elegy is aboutthe death of a young friend, for instance, or the way The Maltese Falconisabout solving the mystery of the fat man and the black bird. It’s about everything that anyone wants towrite about. I suppose what the one story, the ur-story, is about is ourselves, about what it means tobe human. I mean, what else is there? When Stephen Hawking writes A Brief History of Time,what ishe doing except telling us what home is like, describing the place where we live? You see, beinghuman takes in just about everything, since we want to know about space and time and this world andthe next, questions I’m pretty sure none of my English setters have ever really pondered. Mostly,though, we’re interested in ourselves in space or time, in the world. So what our poets andstorytellers do for us—drag a rock up to the fire, have a seat, listen to this one—is explain us-and-the-world, or us-in-the-world.Do writers know this? Do they think about it?
a. Good heavens, no.b. Absolutely, yes.c. Let me try again.On one level, everyone who writes anything knows that pure originality is impossible. Everywhereyou look, the ground is already camped on. So you sigh and pitch your tent where you can, knowingsomeone else has been there before. Think of it this way: can you use a word no one else has everused? Only if you’re Shakespeare or Joyce and coin words, but even they mostly use the same ones asthe rest of us. Can you put together a combination of words that is absolutely unique? Maybe,occasionally, but you can’t be sure. So too with stories. John Barth discusses an Egyptian papyruscomplaining that all the stories have been told and that therefore nothing remains for the contemporarywriter but to retell them. That papyrus describing the postmodern condition is forty-five hundredyears old. This is not a terrible thing, though. Writers notice all the time that their characters resemblesomebody—Persephone, Pip, Long John Silver, La Belle Dame sans Merci—and they go with it.What happens, if the writer is good, is usually not that the work seems derivative or trivial but just theopposite: the work actually acquires depth and resonance from the echoes and chimes it sets up withprior texts, weight from the accumulated use of certain basic patterns and tendencies. Moreover,works are actually more comforting because we recognize elements in them from our prior reading. I